I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The great chinstrap chase

When I left for the Antarctic, my brother, who came here a couple of years ago, told me to expect many wonders, but not to even try to imagine what those wonders would be. He was right, because on the very last day in the Antarctic, our ship was privy to an extraordinary moment that was like National Geographic come to life.

Everyone on board had been thrilled on our last afternoon when we spotted a pod of orcas; we had, unusually, seen very few whales on our trip. Afterwards, most folks had gone down to dinner, but I was sitting up in the bar with two shipboard friends, Eric and Stephanie. Steph was looking out a window and remarked that the orca pod was back. Eric and I went over to have a look.

The orcas were moving in and out of the waves nearby, and we marveled as they swam right up close to the boat. Next thing we knew, a little chinstrap penguin flew out of the water, just ahead of the whales. We looked at one another in amazement as we realized what was happening. A great chase had begun.

We ran outside, not even stopping to put on our parkas, and watched the spectacle unfold. It was the most thrilling event I have ever seen. The pod of whales included two babies, no more than a few months old, and the adults were training them to hunt. Orcas are basically assholes, and will kill for sport as well as food, and they set out to give the poor little chinstrap the fright of a lifetime.

The penguin, meanwhile, had discovered that it could use the hull of the ship for cover, and was desperately weaving in and out of the whales, trying to get behind or beneath the Sea Spirit. The whole pod had risen to the surface for the chase, not ten feet from us as we leaned over the rail, leaping over one another and twisting spectacularly as they pursued the penguin, who was literally flying for its life. Twice it slammed into the ship's hull, and we covered our faces with our hands, sure that it had knocked itself out, expecting every moment to see blood. But that little penguin recovered like lighting. Each time it surfaced again, we cheered.

By then other passengers realized what was happening and all came swarming out from the dining room. Soon everyone was rushing back and forth, calling out, "They've gone forward! Go forward! No wait, they're swimming back. Other side, other side!" The Sea Spirit listed from side to side as everyone ran from port to starboard and back again, the expedition staff were knocking passengers out of the way to take their own photos, and even the captain came down from the bridge and was running back and forth with the rest of us.

It was as thrilling as the Hunger Games, or any lion chasing a zebra on tv. Orcas are skilled hunters, and very deft in the water. Over and over again they lunged at the chinstrap, and the crowd would gasp in horror. But each time the penguin reappeared, flying out of the waves for all it was worth, hurling itself from death's jaws like a champion. The crowd cheered and threw fists in the air, and all around there were cries of¨Go penguin! Go penguin!¨ (From all except the marine biologist, that is, who was rooting for the whales).

Penguin definitely enjoyed home court advantage. On top of its mighty will to live, I think it was spurred on by all our cheering. It never gave up, never wavered, not even when it crashed into the ship. At long last, the orcas turned and swam away. We watched as the chinstrap made great, flying leaps in the other direction, fast as possible. It is surely a much-decorated hero or heroine now in its colony (difficult to tell the gender, really).

It was two days before there was any other conversation topic on the ship. Not a single person was left unmoved, and for me at least, I do not think I shall ever see its equal.